Caribbean Matters: French environmental racism on full display in Martinique and Guadeloupe


When it comes to chlordecone use in Martinique and Guadeloupe, environmental activists have been chasing justice for years, all the way to the highest French court.

The bad news—a slap in the face to all involved—was handed down Jan. 2, as Dánica Coto reports for the Associated Press.

Nearly 20 years after Caribbean islanders sued to hold the French government criminally responsible for the banana industry’s extended use of a banned pesticide in Martinique and Guadeloupe, a panel of judges has dismissed their case, ruling that it’s too hard to determine who’s to blame for acts committed so long ago.

The judges in Paris described the use of chlordecone from 1973-1993 as a scandalous “environmental attack whose human, economic and social consequences affect and will affect for many years the daily life of the inhabitants” of the two French Caribbean islands. But they also asserted that even in the 1990s, scientists had not established links between chlordecone and illnesses in people. “How dare they write such a historical and scientific untruth,” Christophe Lèguevaques, an attorney involved in the case, said in a statement issued Thursday.

“It is unthinkable that those responsible die without being held accountable, Lèguevaques said, adding that he would urge his clients to appeal the Jan. 2 ruling by the national court for public health disputes. Other plaintiffs in the 2006 case include the Paris-based environmental group Générations Futures, which also plans to appeal.

The decision is being covered extensively in both French and Caribbean media, with most coverage in both French and/or Creole. We’ll focus on English-language coverage, like this story from Radio France Internationale (RFI).

With soil, waterways, livestock and agricultural stocks poisoned, thousands of people have been physically affected. An estimated 95 percent of Guadeloupeans and 92 percent of Martiniquans have been exposed to the pesticide, and the departments had the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world in 2018. A parliamentary committee of inquiry led by Martiniquan member of Parliament Serge Letchimy has demonstrated that the contamination could affect children’s brain development and increase the risk of premature births. According to the document, the state has been aware of the potential danger of chlordecone since 1969.

The unfavourable decision, which came to light on Thursday from judicial sources close to the case, had been anticipated by elected officials and the inhabitants of Martinique and Guadeloupe, who have consistently warned that “justice would be denied”.

The ruling from the Paris court’s public health and environment division – which is more than 300 pages long – has effectively put an end to further investigation into the chlordecone claims which began in 2008.

In what is seen as a rare move, the two judges concluded their decision with a five page explanation for the reasoning behind their dismissal of the legal action. However, they admit that the chlordecone pollution of the Antilles is a “health scandal” and an “environmental attack” whose human, economic and social consequences “will affect the daily lives of the inhabitants [of Martinique and Guadeloupe] for many years”.

Writing forThe Washington Post in 2021, journalist and filmmaker Rokhaya Diallo detailed the history of the case.

France started to use [chlordecone] in the Caribbean on banana plantations in 1972 and officially approved the product in 1981. It was ultimately banned in mainland France in 1990, but even after that, a ministerial permit allowed its use until 1993 in these “departments,” a French designation for administrative units of local government such as those in place in Martinique and Guadeloupe. In this, health agencies and agribusiness lobbies were complicit, as Jessica Oublié highlights in her graphic novel “Toxic Tropics.” The dramatic consequences have led to a context of environmental pollution unique in the world, which could last up to 700 years.

It is common to hear that such a scandal, a “colonial crime” in the eyes of many, would never have happened in the European part of France. And it is not the only time that France mistreated those whose ancestors were dominated by the colonial power.

Al Jazeera English covered the protests leading up to the court’s decision.

As the video’s YouTube notes explain: 

Thousands of protesters in the French overseas territory of Martinique have called on judges not to throw out a long-delayed case on pesticide poisoning. Chlordecone was used for decades on the Caribbean island – even after it was banned on the French mainland.It has been blamed for high levels of cancer in the region.

What’s playing out here between France and her Caribbean “citoyens” is a cautionary tale for those people who endorse statehood for the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, particularly those who view it as a solution that will automatically usher in equality and democracy to the island, or even solve its own ongoing chemical contamination crisis.

Clearly, it’s not so simple.

What do you think?